Short Story by Maggie Tiojakin (The Jakarta Post, October 16, 2017)
It was not yet 10:30 a.m., but more than 300 churchgoers from neighboring parishes had already gathered at St. Vincent’s. The pews were filled all the way through to the last rows in the back. Latecomers had to observe the entire service standing up and leaning against walls.
Tall wooden doors that make up the church’s four exits were left open to let the breeze in and it was through these voids that the pastor, deacon, clerks, altar boys and girls on the podium got a glimpse of the lawn outside, the magnolias, the blue sky, as well as the extra rows of seats formed by colorful plastic chairs. People continued pouring into the church and the surrounding lawn, scanning seating arrangements as they went.
Marlena drove through the open lot in search of a parking space, honking at the car in front of her and cursing at the car behind her. Her younger sister, Indriani, sat in the passenger’s seat next to her, typing into her phone and smiling at the screen every time it beeped to announce a message reply. A short, fat man gestured from across the lot for Marlena to parallel park between a Toyota sedan and a Ford pick-up. He had a thumb-sized yellow whistle stuck in his mouth, which he blew as he directed Marlena to turn her wheel left and right.
The sun was already high in the sky and burning fiercely. The parking attendant huffed as he hurried to approach the girls; his face dark and round, beads of sweat crowding his forehead and the tender spot under his jaws. Marlena gave him a small tip. Indriani shot him a quick smile as she walked toward the church.
The two girls dipped the tips of their fingers in a bowl of water fixed at one of the four doors and proceeded to make the sign of the cross in the direction of the altar. They stood at the back of the room among other latecomers. Mothers were closely watching the children — little girls in summer dresses, boys in well-ironed shirts and khakis. Fathers held a thick Gospel in their large hands. Teenagers were busy talking to each other in whispering voices. Lovers laughed at private jokes only they understood.
Marlena couldn’t get Indriani off the phone even as the pastor invited churchgoers to participate in the Act of Penitence.
From where they stood, the two girls couldn’t listen to what was happening on the altar — and they didn’t need to. The procession was familiar enough: a deacon read passages from the Bible and at certain intervals the choir would belt out praiseful hymns. More prayers were recited in unison. Yet the voices of a large crowd several hundred strong somehow fell flat and at times wavered. It was a lot like attending a rock concert without the spirit of experiencing one.
Indriani was bored. She told Marlena she would wait for her outside at the grotto until the service ended. Marlena took a step back to make room for her sister. Indriani squeezed her way out of the crowd, past the lawn and magnolias and rows of people sitting on plastic chairs. Some people stared at her, wondering where she was going — but she didn’t care.
Indriani started for the grotto located about a few metres away from the church and sat on one of the benches facing a 3-meter statuette of the Virgin Mary in a flowing white robe encircled by dozens of flower bouquets and red candles. She tried to remember what day it was and why the church was so full; but she could think of nothing.
Indriani reached into a box of fresh candles and grabbed a handful. She carefully planted four candles around the statuette — in honor of her father, mother, Marlena and herself — and burned each stringy wick with a live one. Afterward, she returned to the bench and began to pray. It was a very short prayer. She asked for world peace: the only thing that came to mind.
A friend replied to her message about going to the movies later on. The friend’s message said she would notify Indriani as soon as she was heading out to Plaza Indonesia. Don’t be late, Indriani typed into her phone. Yes, Mother Superior, replied her friend. She smiled at this, too.
Marlena joined her sister at the grotto before the service ended in order to stay ahead of the exiting crowd. She lit one candle and stood and prayed in front of the statuette with her head down and her hands clasped before her chest. Her eyes were tightly shut. Her knuckles turned white as she prayed. She asked for a husband, for a job that pays really well and for the opportunity to travel abroad at least once a year. She’d longed to set foot in some of the world’s greatest cities — Paris and Rome and Shanghai and Buenos Aires. She recited Hail Mary thrice under her breath to seal the prayer, quickly. She blew a kiss at the statuette before leaving the grotto.
The two sisters returned to the lot and were back in the car just as the remaining congregation chanted their thanks and counted their blessings. Pretty soon everyone would swarm out of the church and into the lawn and across the lot. Children would be running around and parents too busy chatting with fellow parishioners to mind them. It was noon and the sun was rather unforgiving. Food carts milled about the place. Drink stations were surrounded by a mob of thirsty churchgoers.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the city, traffic was unexpectedly light. Marlena suggested they stop at Burger King for a Big Mac and a Slurpee. Indriani tucked her phone away and glared impatiently at the road ahead. This alone is worth losing sleep and dressing up every Sunday morning. She wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Maggie Tiojakin is an Indonesian writer and translator. She is also the managing director of The Jakarta Post Writing Center.
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